Kyoto off the beaten path: see the ancient capital in a whole new way!
Kyoto as a destination needs very little in terms of introduction. As the ancient capital of Japan and home to a vast majority of its UNESCO World Heritage sites, Kyoto is a staple of itineraries for visitors to the country, both for first-time and veteran travelers alike. But what many may not realize is that Kyoto is much more than just the central city and is, in actuality, an entire prefecture with a medley of destinations to discover if you deviate from the usual spots.
From picturesque hiking spots and landscapes to smaller, quaint villages sprinkled throughout the region, Kyoto and the surrounding area are truly worthwhile destinations. Check out some of these lesser-known yet just as charming spots around Kyoto that are great for day trips or taking the time to stay for a chance to experience the Kyoto that many haven’t seen before!
Villages and towns of Kyoto Prefecture
Kyoto, the city, is the capital of the prefecture of the same name. Nestled in the heart of the Kansai region, it has a population of around 1.5 million people and sees tens of millions of tourists every single year. This is for good reason, as it is a major hub for culture and history in Japan, but it is far from the only established town in the entirety of Kyoto prefecture that warrants a visit. From north to south and even into Shiga Prefecture, there are great destinations with amazing things to experience and people to meet!
Even just a short trip from the city center, the town of Uji is a worthwhile and accessible destination. Uji is centered around the famous Byoudo-in Temple, elegantly situated on the water with ornate hues of crimson and gold decorating it. The temple grounds were first erected in the year 998, but initially as a retreat for Fujiwara no Michinaga, a powerful politician at the time.
In the modern day, the temple grounds house a special museum about the temple that incorporates cutting-edge technology, juxtaposing the original tea room where visitors can enjoy authentic, locally-sourced Uji matcha. Matcha from Uji is likely the town's most well-known export, praised for its high quality and used in prestigious traditional tea ceremonies.
Neighboring Kyoto to the east is Shiga Prefecture, home to the largest freshwater lake in all of Japan: Lake Biwa. It’s on the banks of Lake Biwa, where the town of Omi-Hachiman is located. This is a town with a very distinct atmosphere, a rich feudal past, and many wooden-constructed temples. Also formerly a well-established merchant town, the historic districts are laced with canals that can be traversed via small boat!
Overlooking the town and lake is Mount Hachiman, whose summit is easily accessible via cable car or a short hike up. The panoramic view of the land meeting the lake water is an enigmatic scene that encapsulates the charm of the area perfectly.
The northern end of Kyoto Prefecture is actually the coastal area of the Japan Sea, and on this coast is the fishing village of Ine, located between the sea and the mountains. Ine is architecturally distinct for its funaya, traditional homes built on the water, often with downstairs structures meant to house boats.
The waters around the town are beautiful and pristine, with opportunities for coastal cruises and other water activities. Of course, being a fishing village, the seafood in Ine is among the best in the area. Be sure to try specialties such as buri (amberjack) and oysters at the local restaurants!
The name “Miyama” directly translates to “beautiful mountain,” and it fully lives up to its name. The small village is located in the heart of the prefecture, northwest of Kyoto, the capital. It is characterized by its traditional that-roofed homes (known as minka), surrounded by rice paddies, and home to ancient crafts.
These traditional crafts include things such as aizome (Japanese indigo dyeing), kurotani washi (Japanese paper-making), and straw crafts. The artisanal spirit of Miyama is fully derived from the nature that surrounds it.
The city of Kyoto is enveloped in nature, surrounded by mountains and three sides with rich rivers flowing through. But naturally, head out even further from the city, and nature becomes the dominant presence, absorbing travelers in its wonders and providing them with unforgettable scenes. Exploring the greater Kyoto Prefecture allows for great getaways with nature and scenery at the forefront.
For the first scenic getaway, not much distance needs to be made between you and the city. Kibune is a village built right into the side of a mountain high above Kyoto. About 1.5 hours away with public transportation, it perfectly encapsulates the charm of the area while having an atmosphere all its own.
Pay a visit to Kibune Shrine with a lantern-illuminated path and take in the tranquility of the nature-infused holy location. Nearby, the town of Kurama is just a hike across the mountain and holds its own number of historic sites, temples, and beautiful scenery.
Back to the northern coast of Kyoto brings travelers to one of what is called “the Three Views of Japan,” as canonized by scholar Hayashi Gaho in the 1600s. Amanohashidate is an impressive sight that one would not believe was natural at first viewing. Amanohashidate is a natural sand bar that connects two ends of a bay. The sand bar itself is covered with dense foliage, and at one end there is a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine at the other.
There are a number of observation decks around the natural landmark for optimal viewing. Closer to sea level, there are a number of pristine beaches to pass the time, as well as bike paths to traverse. Be sure to take in the views and vibes of the area with the sea breeze blowing past!
The area of Kameoka is one of the definitive destinations in inland Japan. Replace coastal scenery with the winding Hozugawa River and foliage-dense mountains and valleys; this is the Japan, often only seen in movies and television. Take a boat trip out on the river and see the amazing scenery around, especially noteworthy in autumn when the leaves of the surrounding mountains erupt into beautiful hues of gold and crimson and the cool air makes for a beautiful experience.
In the same area, the mystical “sea of clouds" makes for an amazing scene, as low-hanging clouds can be seen from above from mountain terraces. This is a great scene for photographers and those looking for some one-of-a-kind scenery.
The greenery of Wazuka may be a bit different from other places on this list, but it is a memorable scene regardless. Wazuka is known for its tea plantations, which grow tea leaves for matcha production, a major product from Kyoto. In fact, the area of Wazuka has been producing matcha for over 800 years, and the bushes of the plantations decorate the surrounding area with a bold, deep hue of green.
There are a number of farms that allow for tours on their grounds for an in-depth look into the cultivation of the world-famous traditional beverage. There are also cafes throughout, serving the locally produced tea in both drink and dessert form. For extra touches of tradition, the Yasaka-Jinja Shrine is a worthwhile visit, especially when illuminated at night.